Living in Ho Chi Minh City is a constant whirlwind. The city truly has so much to offer, from swimming pools to bars, to rooftops, shops, and street food. But no matter how many choices there are in the city there is not getting around the fact that it is consistently hot, busy, and crowded. So sometimes you just need to get out.
I lived in Ho Chi Minh for over a year and took a few long trips around Vietnam, as well as out of the country altogether, but I also took a few short day trips from the city for quick but much needed escapes. A number of the spots I went to are not on the typical tourist radar. So if you’re ready to ditch the westerner and see what a Vietnamese person does on their day off, here are some ideas.
I’ve always known Scorpion Lake by this name, but to some it is Yellow Scorpion Lake and to the Vietnamese it is Bo Cap Vang (important to know should you get lost and need directions). Scorpion Lake is 30km from the city. I used it a few times as a practice cycle ride to get ready for H2H, but on a motorbike it would be a much more enjoyable journey.
There are a few ways you can leave the city, but I always went out over the Phu My Bridge. From there it’s a pretty simple, nearly straight shot, with just two right hand turns. There is one stretch of road along the way which is totally full of potholes, so slow down and don’t go supermanning over your handle bars. My first time out we rode 10km past the turn off as it’s not particularly well marked, so do look out, because there is some signage you’ll see if you’re paying attention.
Thanks to my schedule, I always found myself at Scorpion Lake during the week so it was never very busy. There were usually a few families picnicking, some kids jumping off the diving boards and others napping in the many hammocks around the property. The park area has some food offerings and when you’ve cycled the 30km out you’re glad for it, but if you’re on a motorbike you might consider bringing a picnic lunch to eat beside the lake. There are various diving boards and bounce pads to get you into the water, so bring a bathing suit if you fancy jumping in (life jackets are required but are provided, for a small fee, at the lake). Grab your hammock nap, post fun in the sun, and before you know it the sun’ll be receding and you’ll be ready for your jaunt back into the city.
Can Gio in Vietnamese, I’d always been weary to head out here as I’d heard stories of the monkeys running up to people and snatching anything they had. After much hesitation I finally got two friends together and we braved it as a group. If anything, it’s worth going out to Monkey Island simply for the quiet drive out of the city.
From Ho Chi Minh, Monkey Island is around 50km each way, so we left our bicycles behind and took our motorbikes instead. Heading out of the city you’ll make your way through district 7 to the Binh Khanh ferry which is 2,000 VND for a ticket (mere pennies), the ride takes about 10 minutes. Once you get off the ferry on the other side you’ll continue on – driving entirely straight down the same road. This is where the journey becomes enjoyable. The far side of the river leaves behind the traffic, buildings, smog, and dust of the city and is actually green. Green on both sides, there is not a building in sight, and only the very occasional truck roars past you. The peaceful scenery lasts right up until a sign with a monkey which indicates the Monkey Island turn off to your left.
We entered an oddly empty parking lot and thought perhaps we were in the wrong place, but we parked anyways and went in the direction a friendly old man pointed us in. We found laid paths and some signage as proof that we were in fact in the right spot. As we wandered along we found some pigs wallowing away below us, some Vietnamese men eating and napping, but not a single monkey.
Soon enough though we heard them screeching off in the distance. Some Australian tourists came walking towards us from the direction of the screeches (these were the only other Westerners we saw our entire visit) and we expressed our concerns of being accosted by the monkeys, they told us that so long as we weren’t holding anything we’d be fine. We’d left our bags in our bikes and had just a water bottle and a pair of sunglasses each. We each tucked our sunglasses inside our shirts and decided we’d use our water bottles as a weapon should the need arise and we headed in, chins high. Staying close together we didn’t make a peep. We found a few babies sleeping in the trees, their mothers and families nearby. Perhaps we caught them at a good time of day or we were just unobtrusive enough for them to pay us no mind, because that’s exactly what they did. We walked through and continued on. Having survived without a single monkey encounter we wandered out to some floating houses (where you can stay the night should you so desire) and hearing a rumble in the distance we headed back to our bikes to try and beat the rain home (which we were not successful at…bring a poncho!).
As mentioned, I recommend the drive out on your own motorbike, but if you’re not comfortable driving in Vietnam there are day tours you can take.
Mekong River Delta
I booked our Mekong tour through Sinh Tourist on De Tham in District 1. Abbe and I headed out around 9:00 in the morning on the bus from in front of their office. We toured a coconut candy factory, had lunch, held a snake, went on a small canoe down a stretch of the river, listened to some traditional music, and were back before dark. The tour was short and sweet and it was one of the things that when you live in a place for so long you feel you must do. Would I recommend it for someone who’s only in the area for a few days? Not necessarily, but then again we seem to have ended up on the tour that didn’t include the floating markets which is supposed to be the highlight of the area, so make sure that if you do go your tour will bring you there!
There are a huge variety of day tours you can do to visit the Mekong river area. You could drive yourself, but it is on the longer end of day trips. Day tours can include a huge variety of options – like this one which includes a visit to a pagoda and a paddle down the river – so make sure you’re clear on what you are getting and where you are going before booking. Alternatively, you could turn this trip into an overnight – there are homestay and hotel options all throughout the area.
Gang Dien Waterfalls
A friend had a friend coming into town and he organized a bunch of us to head out for an overnight (ok, not exactly a day trip for us but it can easily be done in one day). I ended up taking the local bus, which was cheap and shockingly easy. A bunch of the others drove motorbikes out and I got a ride back on one, the drive is simple but some of the roads are quite cramped with construction and massive trucks speeding past – so, you take your pick.
The waterfalls are 50km from the city in a 67 hectare tourist area. It’s secluded, quiet, and peaceful. The waterfalls are manmade but are lovely all the same. Here, same as at Scorpion Lake, you must wear a life vest to go in the water, but you pay a small fee and get those at the water. We spent the afternoon in and out of the water, climbing up underneath the waterfall and jumping off. There is a small restaurant that serves up basic Vietnamese dishes like pork and rice, and a few snack stalls that sell plenty of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. We did bring a bunch of our own snacks and drinks as they’re fairly overpriced on site, and you’re certainly allowed to do that. After we’d had our fun in the water and our fill at the restaurant we retreated to the camping area.
At Gang Dien you’ll find Vietnamese style ‘glamping’. The tents are semi-permanent and raised up off the ground on wooden platforms. You get a thin mattress pad and sleeping bag each (two per tent) as well as a locker, soap, and a comb, and access to clean bathrooms and hot showers. Not so bad. Especially for less than $20 for each two-person tent. We had about eight tents between all of us and were the only ones in the camping area. But, as with so many of my trips we were there mid week.
Check out is not until noon so you can spend the next morning hanging about, jumping back in the water, and eating some more. We left after lunch and were back in the city in time to teach our evening classes.
Dam Sen Water Park
Dam Sen Water Park is a 10 minute taxi ride from district 5, it costs 120,000 VND ($6.00) to get in, and mid week you’ll find it beautifully empty and line free. Now, do keep in mind the safety standards in Vietnam may not be quite what you’re used to, so ride at your own risk and with some amount of common sense! A few of the rides were quite terrifying, including the one which you lie on your stomach and go shooting down a water slide with two major drops – the kamikaze. Ouch. And the one where you sit in a three person raft and get dropped off a 180 degree drop then shoot up the other side and back again – the boomerang. Others were more enjoyable and less terror inducing. Surprisingly the one where you go shooting down a tube, spun around a toilet like basin, and dropped out the middle like a poo wasn’t so bad! If water parks are your thing, why not stop by? Do remember to leave all your valuables behind and of course bring a bathing suit and towel!
Cu Chi Tunnels
Normally I would never do something like this on a tour, but in Vietnam it is often easier to just book a bus than to try and sort out local transport. So, at about 7:30 AM. we met at the tourist agency – Sinh Tourist again – where we’d made our booking. I grabbed some street fruit and we loaded up, off by 8 am. The trip was an hour and a half one way.
When we arrived at the Cu Chi Tunnels, we were promptly herded from the bus, with our tour group, to a small covered area where we were seated to watch a short video. I am glad to report that propaganda is alive and well in communist Vietnam and that’s exactly what we were fed. The video was clearly quite old, probably from just after the war ended. It told a story of a quiet, peaceful place where the people cared nothing for fighting, ‘miles away from Washington.’ It told us how the Americans, ‘like a crazy batch of devils’ dropped bombs and killed the innocents, forcing them underground, into the tunnels. It told of ‘American Killing Heroes’ Vietnamese who were awarded for the sheer number of Americans they killed. This is not a joke.
With thoughts of propaganda dancing in our heads, we headed to the tunnels. We saw various booby traps, all created by the Vietnamese, planted in the middle of the jungle for the Americans to fall victim to. We saw mannequin manned sets on which displays were making weapons and clothing out of old bombs or destroyed machinery. We climbed atop an American tank which had broken down during the war and hasn’t moved since. I climbed into a hole in the ground which led to a tunnel which has been made bigger to accommodate western tummys, full of McDonalds. And finally, we got to the main event, a chance to crawl through the tunnels. I’m 5’1″ and made it through the tunnels simply ducking, no need to ever crawl. If you’re claustrophobic I cannot imagine this would be enjoyable for you, but in reality they are not that cramped and you’re not in them for very long at all.
Once we’d all finished our crawl we got pushed through a hallway of souvenir shopping and popped out the other side to get back onto our bus for another nap and drive back to Saigon.
The day was a bit odd, it felt a bit strange to be a tourist on what were once killing grounds. I did take some photos, smiling and posing, but I do find spots like this hopelessly difficult – I always endeavor to find the middle ground between learning and remembering but also moving forward and sharing my experience. Cu Chi Tunnels however, has been seriously revamped into a full on tourist trap and honestly, it would be at the bottom of my priority list if your trip to Ho Chi Minh is only short.
However, should you choose to go, there are lots of tour options. You can head straight for the tunnels, or combine them with other attractions on a full day out, and of course there are overnight options.
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